Police Use of Force Standards: Policymaking Targets

Despite police use of force being a low-occurring event, well-publicized incidents can evoke widespread concern among community members and policymakers alike. Despite this, the police are still a primary agent of coercive force, and typically when police are called, there is a strong possibility that coercive force may be necessary. From a legal perspective, the most important consideration in police use of force is the U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, which provides a professional and legal understanding of reasonableness viewed as an objective evaluation of the totality of prevailing circumstances at that time. The formulation of the reasonableness standard has been controversial on several fronts, though, mostly because there is ambiguity of what a “reasonable officer” is and what is deemed reasonable likely differs between police officers and the general community.

In addition to Graham v. Connor, a primary mechanism employed to deter excessive police force is through department policy.  Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) desiring national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) must have well-developed policies that clearly govern use of deadly force, use of less-lethal force, rendering medical aid subsequent to force being used, training and proficiency with authorized weapons, and reporting/review of uses of force. Police departments typically have established use-of-force continua to guide officer decisions regarding what type of force should be used for a given level of subject resistance. Continua include varying levels of resistance and force arranged along an ordinal scale in terms of the severity of harm it presents to the other person. Typically, continua specify the highest level of force allowed for a given level of subject resistance. Despite the widespread use of these continua by LEAs though, little research has been conducted to evaluate the accuracy of force continua with underlying ordinal rankings.

Research on Police Use of Force

The bulk of research on police use of force has relied on either sociological or psychological orientations. One of these perspectives is known as Tedeschi and Felson’s Theory of Coercive Actions, which focuses on the exchange between actors and the situational forces that influence the interaction. The theory presumes that force is rational and goal-oriented for the purpose of: 1) controlling others, 2) dispensing justice, or 3) protecting social identities. Although controlling others is an acceptable means to use force (for example, when a subject presents danger to another person), officers may at times resort to coercion to achieve justice or protect identities (for example, in the presence of third parties).

One of the major difficulties in studying police use of force is developing an appropriate comparison group. While it is easier to pick out situations where force was used, it is not as easy to pick out comparable cases where force could have been used (but wasn’t). There are a number of options that researchers have used to do this, but each has benefits and drawbacks. Some of the common methods include 1): comparing officers using force to other officers at the same scene who did not use force; 2) comparing a sample of arrests where force was used with arrests where force was not used; 3) comparing calls for service resulting in force versus calls for service that had similar characteristics but did not result in force; 4) comparing cases that have high levels of anticipated violence with those that have low levels of anticipated violence; and 5) comparing cases based on a use of force continuum that measures the escalation and de-escalation patterns of an incident involving force. Force continua are a popular option because they are similar to many of the use-of-force policies applied in police departments.

Use of Force Continua

When it comes to studying use of force via a continuum, one must think about how to measure “levels” of force and resistance. A subject can exhibit different types of resistance, such as verbal resistance (verbal rebuts, threats), passive resistance (noncompliance), defensive resistance (fleeing from officers), active resistance (attempting to harm officers), and deadly resistance (attempting to fatally harm officers). Officers, on the other hand, can exhibit different types of force, such as officer presence, verbal commands, physical soft (grabbing, pushing, holds), pain compliance (pressure point manipulations, possibly pepper spray), physical hard (punches, kicks, strikes), impact (batons), intermediate weapons (tasers), and deadly force. When using a continuum, each category of force receives an ordinal ranking and each category of resistance receives an ordinal ranking.

For example, police force might look like: 1=No force, 2=Command, 3=Threat, 4=Restraint/control, 5=Pain compliance/takedown, 6=Impact. Conversely, resistance might look like: 1=No resistance, 2=Verbal resistance, 3=Passive resistance, 4=Active resistance, 5=Defensive resistance. Then, researchers can look at the the level of force applied in relation to the level of subject resistance used. In additional, the measure allows researchers to look at how patterns of force may change throughout an encounter. In the research, this is sometimes referred to as a “transactional” or “force factor” approach.

There are a couple problems with this approach, though. First, departments vary in terms of what types of force they place in which categories (i.e., pepper spray is sometimes in the pain compliance category while other times it is in the impact weapons category). Further, a 2021 study by Mourtgos, Adams, and Baty has called into question the validity of use-of-force continua featuring ordinal rankings after finding that less-than-lethal uses of force did not follow an ordinal structure. This study also found that “lower” force options were associated with increased officer injuries, which was an unexpected and unfortunate finding.

Policy Implications

The vast majority of agencies now include a “use of force continuum” in their policies and may also include a heuristic rule for identifying what force is appropriate. These policies might be ineffective in practice, however, given the reasons stated above. Considering the findings of Mourtgos et al. (2021), one must wonder if ordinally-based use-of-force continua is truly the best for guiding  use of force decisions. Use-of-force continua assumes a proportional and incremental response by an officer as subject resistance increases. However, the study found that less-lethal options did not consist of a true underlying ordinal structure.

Additionally, physical force is often placed below other non-lethal categories of force, yet this category was associated with greater likelihood of officer injuries. This finding is also consistent with research published in 2019 by Stroshine and Brandl. Both the 2021 and 2019 studies suggested that physical force was the most commonly applied type of force. This is important to understand for policymaking because it appears that the most commonly employed type of force is also the most highly associated with officer injuries. Thus, this point warrants consideration when departments continue to refine their use of force policies.

Research Implications

As such, policing researchers should strive to better understand how less-lethal force is used and how and why police agencies create the policies governing its use. Research may help empirically inform the application of force, and it may also help determine when an officer’s actions are objectively reasonable. Other areas for improvement include refining training, developing new ways of conceptualizing use of force, and developing better use of force response models. Such research should provide greater insight into when, where, and why force is used by police officers, and how it can be applied appropriately.

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